Mundane Fascism and Laboring Love: An Interview with Radhika Govindrajan

“Cow bank” requesting donations to buy food for cows. Photo by Radhika Govindrajan.

This post builds on the research article “Labors of Love: On the Political Economies and Ethics of Bovine Politics in Himalayan India” by Radhika Govindrajan, which was published in the May 2021 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.

Prerna Srigyan invites Radhika Govindrajan to discuss the importance and implications of bringing in the politics of loving and laboring to understand the mundane production of violence. In Uttarakhand, India, participation in everyday acts of love and labor toward the cow creates inclusions and exclusions of who can be a genuinely loving subject. How do majoritarian formations assemble regional political and affective economies through more-than-human relationships? How do we recognize that non-innocent subjectivities are key to loving reparatively?

Prerna Srigyan: Your work astutely ties labor to the politics of love. Your interlocutors use different words to signify the kind of labor that distinguishes their love for the cow and the nation as more authentic than the rest. This competitive desire for authenticity, rooted in valuing certain kinds of labor over others, as a whole, brings violence to those who cannot “lay genuine claim to the status of a loving subject” (195). What tactics were helpful to you to engage with the interlocutors in your field whose laboring love brings violence? How did they make sense of your presence in their lives?

Radhika Govindrajan: This article grew out of an urgent desire to understand the everyday social worlds in which fascist politics acquires political and “emotional force” and encounters its limits (Rosaldo 1993 [1989]). In recent years I have been struck by how deeply entrenched the politics of cow-protection has become in Uttarakhand’s social, political, and religious life, and I wanted to understand how it had come to “stick” and “electrify,” so to speak (Govindrajan, Joshi, and Rizvi 2021). While my previous work had traced the effects of cow-protection laws and politics on the livelihood of dairy farmers in the mountains, it was only more recently that I became involved in the world of cow-protectionists through a fairly mundane practice: watching and sometimes physically attending gau-kathas (ritual performances of religious narratives about the cow) with women I had first met during my dissertation fieldwork in Uttarakhand in 2010. The gurus who performed at these kathas fostered the politics of cow-protection in other crucial ways: organizing public rallies against cow slaughter, raising funds for gaushalas, and petitioning state authorities to act on behalf of the cow. Their activities brought a wide range of actors—vigilante gau-rakshaks, religious figures, volunteers for right-wing organizations, rural dairy farmers, managers of gaushalas, politicians, animal rights activists—into the same frame and revealed their dense, albeit complicated and uneven, interconnections. I find that the exclusive, almost “pornographic” (Daniel 1996), focus on vigilante violence in much of the contemporary media coverage of cow-protection overlooks these more quotidian social and religious realms in which majoritarian political structures are fertilized and legitimized (but also contested) on an everyday basis. As Sara Ahmed (2004) so powerfully observes, fascist narratives are not “extraordinary” but deeply invested “in the production of the ordinary.” I would argue that attending to mundane fascism is a critical task for ethnographers who are ideally placed to understand the ways in which a politics of hate, violence, and exclusion emerges from and attaches to locally meaningful desires, ambivalences, and hostilities.

This political and theoretical commitment to situating vigilante gau-rakshaks within a broader social field of majoritarian politics shaped the nature of my engagement with them. Rather than treating them as an aberrant “fringe” (a term often used in the Indian media to downplay the widespread support for right-wing mobilization in the country), I sought to understand how their politics took shape through and against discourses and practices of love, hate, labor, kinship, and sacrifice that also inflected the political subjectivity of gau-sevaks, rural women dairy farmers, and state officials. In terms of the ethnographic mechanics of this approach, I was aided by the fact that I either met vigilante gau-rakshaks at gau-kathas or rallies (more the latter than the former) or was introduced to them by gurus or individuals who ran gaushalas. Our conversations began from and were guided the recognition that they were enmeshed in and shaped by this wide and porous network of social relationships. Similarly, their response to me was also mediated by their knowledge of my presence within and interest in the broader social worlds of everyday Hindu religiosity (the katha space), rural dairy farming, animal-rights activism, and the gaushala industry. Indeed, the fact that it was common to encounter women in these more quotidian sites of cow-protection politics made the process of engaging with the intensely male world of vigilante gau-raksha a little easier.

Having said that, I continue to struggle with the ethics of ethnographic engagement with gau-rakshaks. As scholars have noted, anthropology has historically shied away from engaging with “repugnant cultural others” (Harding 1991) or, as Sahana Ghosh et al. put it, the “bad guys.” One reason for this is an understandable anxiety about legitimizing oppressive systems of power, or, as Saidiya Hartman (2008) so powerfully puts it, replicating “the grammar of violence” when revisiting the “scene of subjection.” The Indian journalist Mohammad Ali writes movingly and powerfully about this in a recent essay on the psychological effects of studying Hindu supremacist politics as a Muslim man. And yet, I was acutely aware in doing this research that there was no “me” or “we” that could be seamlessly distinguished from a “them.” For one, as a person whose name marked me as Hindu, I was, whether I wanted to be or not, often implicitly subsumed within a Hindu “we” by my gau-rakshak interlocutors. That was a powerful and painful reminder that the political distance and difference anthropologists presume between themselves and “repugnant others” can sometimes be either illegible or meaningless to the latter. Such occasions call for an uncomfortable yet necessary examination, as Liana Chua and Nayanika Mathur (2018) propose, of who “we” anthropologists think “we” are in relation to our interlocutors. Secondly, and this goes back to my point above, the separation of “good” interlocutors from “bad” does not permit a full examination of how majoritarian politics comes to be desirable to a variety of social actors who might be ambivalent or hostile to one another. And, finally, I think an ethnographic account of the social and ideological intersections and divergences between different actors in majoritarian social worlds is so important precisely because it can illuminate the limits and ruptures of right-wing politics in situated contexts. This is a political project of the utmost urgency.

I would argue that attending to mundane fascism is a critical task for ethnographers who are ideally placed to understand the ways in which a politics of hate and exclusion attaches to locally meaningful desires, ambivalences, and hostilities.

PS: You situate the specificity of the labors that imbue love with particular force as part of the urban and rural political economies that have together produced a “regional Hindutva” (Joshi 2018) in the state of Uttarakhand. This conceptual intervention deeply resonates with me. As an occasional traveler to Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, I saw these Himalayan states described as devbhoomi (land of gods) on transportation services and other local industries. The way right-wing politics assembles regional political economies within is a source of frustration and surprise for those organizing against it across the world. How does scaling Hindutva like this call into question the ways authoritarianism and fascism are theorized and resisted?

RG: “The way right-wing politics assembles regional political economies” is a great way to describe what is at work! For me, theorizing authoritarianism or fascism involves understanding how singular right-wing discourses of “purity” or “injury” become porous, eclectic, and infinitely pliant when it comes to constructing majoritarian political assemblages in differently situated worlds. For example, during legal and political conflicts around animal sacrifice in Uttarakhand in 2010–2011, right-wing Hindu organizations that espoused vegetarianism (and argued that animal slaughter was an injury to Hindu sentiment) elsewhere in the country became fervent defenders of the pahari (mountain) Hindu’s right to sacrifice animals (Govindrajan 2014). Their reasoning was that a ban on ritual sacrifice would injure (chot) and emasculate pahari Hindu belief (aastha). What might be read as fickleness or hypocrisy illuminates how right-wing groups are able to make a transcendental, homogenous politics feel intimate and individualized across a range of social realms. As Bhoomika Joshi, Mubbashir Rizvi, and I (Govindrajan, Joshi, and Rizvi 2021) have recently argued, the language “of injury and violation [in right-wing politics] is remarkably creative and malleable in the ways it can be invoked to address the specificity of local grievances while, at the same time, operating as a meta-narrative that arouses and electrifies the sentiments of the body politic.”

The growing economic and political clout of the devbhumi industry in Uttarakhand is an excellent example of how locally meaningful discourses and practices of sacred geography have been powerfully threaded into the Hindu right’s narrative of an imperiled Hindu geography that must be protected at all costs. In the article, I discuss how one of the leading figures of the cow-protection movement in Uttarakhand connects pahari people’s concerns about lack of employment, health, and education opportunities in the mountains to their failure to protect the Cow-Mother who birthed the devbhumi. Of course, the invocation of the devbhumi as a politically salient category isn’t limited just to the Hindu right. Arvind Kejriwal, the Chief Minister of Delhi whose political party (AAP) is trying to make inroads in Uttarakhand, just announced that his party will make devbhumi Uttarakhand the “spiritual capital” of Hindus across the world. Having said that, I don’t want to suggest that the devhbhumi discourse possessed an originary innocence or authenticity that has been recently corrupted by right-wing appropriation. Scholars like Emma Mawdsley (2005) and Mukul Sharma (2012) have pointed to the uncomfortable connections between Hindu supremacy and socio-environmental movements rooted in conceptions of pahari sacred geography. A study of how authoritarianism comes to root itself in specific geographies must therefore involve mapping its historically shifting resonances and dissonances with regional political cosmologies.

PS: One of your interlocutors, Vikas, expresses anger about the “failure of the state to enshrine Hindu emotion into law” (201). This articulation of injury lends force to “parallel state structure" through which the Hindu Rashtra (Nation) is materializing” (Anderson and Jaffrelot 2018, 474). Yet, in your work, the boundaries between the state and “parallel state structures” become muddled when seen through the lens of laboring love and its (un)deserving subjects. What does this failure (refusal?) of the state and muddling of these boundaries tell you about limits of violent love for the state?

RG: The cow-protectionists I engaged with were unanimous in their judgment that the state had failed its Hindu populace, human and nonhuman (I’ll return to the nonhuman at the end of this response). At one of the rallies I attended in Delhi, numerous speakers (among whom were representatives of some of the most important Hindu pilgrimage shrines in the country) excoriated the BJP for having reneged on its promises to enact a national ban on cow slaughter. There was a sense among people I spoke to that the postcolonial Indian state—even under the control of those nominally committed to Hindutva—was incapable of acting on behalf of Hindus because it remained, in essence, a colonial state that refused to officially recognize Hindus as the “primary citizens,” the autochthones of the land (cf. Thapar 2020). They thus diagnosed ongoing injury to Hindus in terms of the inescapable persistence of a colonial ideology that failed to acknowledge the depth of Hindu love. For them, true “decolonization” would produce a state and legal system guided by the principles of an “indigenous” Hindu cosmology in which the cow was not an “animal” to be cut, but a mother to be loved and worshiped. This project of “decolonization,” numerous speakers at the rally insisted, would have to be led by ordinary Hindus who could not rely on the state to “free” them. Importantly, they argued, it was not just human Hindus who were provoked by the failure of the state: the Ganga, the Himalaya, and other nonhuman entities who were primordially Hindu had a love for Gau-Mata (Cow-Mother) that was fierce enough to topple any state that sanctioned her murder. One of the speakers urged the government to heed the hunkar (the forceful challenge) of the Himalaya; even the mountains would no longer tolerate the oppression of Hindus in their ancestral homeland. I was struck by how, in this worldview, the “loving labors” of the “parallel state” or “originary political order” are not just human, but also other-than-human. This more-than-human fascism disguised as “decolonization” is the subject of a collaborative project that I’m currently working on with the anthropologist Mona Bhan. We argue that the danger of a decontextualized understanding of “decolonization” is precisely its obfuscation of the crucial differences between legitimate Indigenous struggles against settler colonial structures of rule and the strategic deployment of discourses of indigeneity to legitimize a fascist politics. Prematurely celebratory accounts of “cosmopolitics” that challenge the foundational assumptions of “Western politics” can thus end up depoliticizing them in ways that do not allow for a serious and sustained engagement with their situated histories and politics.

Through my ethnographic work, I’ve learned that the messiness and muddle of everyday life can throw up political and ethical possibilities that begin from a recognition that accountability, repair, and reparation require ongoing labor by un-innocent subjects.

PS: Your observation of online volunteers who portray the female cow as an innocent and indiscriminate mother of all humans is a fascinating dive into how Hindu nationalism, specifically Hindutva digital cultures (Banaji 2018; Udupa 2018), forms its publics. These volunteers’ sense of selfless service for the cow is in sharp contrast to the women who do the actual work of caring for cows in their farms. The women understand their own and the cows’ naturalizations of the reproductive and care labors as already entangled in the capitalist and patriarchal organization of regional political economy, and resist it. Do you see a counter-publics forming in how the farmers share information and stories? What spaces and publics could ethnographers turn their attention to?

RG: This is such an important question. In “Labors of Love,” I argue that the sharp critiques pahari women farmers level at gau-rakshak discourses of innocence and motherhood disrupt the purity of fascist love by insisting on a recognition of the hierarchy, violence, and erasure that subtends feminized labor, both human and bovine. Might such critiques constitute what Nancy Fraser calls a “subaltern counter-public” in the sense that they “formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs” (Fraser 1990, 67)? Yes, absolutely. But it’s still a fragile, if promising, counter-public in that it lacks the purposive organization (not to mention the institutional and financial strength) of Hindutva digital publics. That might change, of course. We’re hearing of farmers across north India who are enraged by stray cattle feeding on their crops, a problem that is a direct consequence of anti-slaughter laws in these states. I’m also thinking outside my own ethnographic context now, of the counter-public that emerged through and around the farmers protesting farm bills that seek to deregulate the agrarian economy. One of the most extraordinary things about the protests was the attempt by farmers to produce media (shared via Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook among other platforms) that chronicled the history of their struggles, the specificity of their demands, the effect of the laws on their lives, livelihoods, and relationships. As the historian Navyug Gill (Gill and Judge 2021) so powerfully notes, the protests drew on a long history “of widespread irreverence and even contempt of common people toward authority” in Punjab. There’s always a possibility that the fraught relationship between gau-rakshaks and the pahari women they seek to recruit to their cause might throw up a more structured challenge to the violent politics of Hindutva. Having said that, I want to be careful not to suggest that rural pahari women are taking an explicitly anti-Hindutva position. These gendered critiques of labor inequalities disrupt fascist political arrangements in powerful ways, engender new political solidarities, and suggest alternative possibilities for ethical relations, but I’m not sure they can be treated as a counter-public that is formed in direct and explicit opposition to fascist politics at large.

PS: Your previous work (Govindrajan 2018) has challenged the foundations of right-wing animal rights organizing, so crucial to the project of nationalism, by telling the stories of human/nonhuman relationships that resist epistemic and moral purity (Ticktin 2017). You continue that important work in this article by depicting the “semantic openness” (214) of your interlocutors who engage in reparative love which “refused purity and coherence” (215) and is embodied, relational, and work-in-progress. How does this sensibility inform the way you think about organizing and pedagogy in non-fascist spaces? What do you want to turn your attention to next?

RG: You’re correct in noting that my work so far has been driven by a desire to resist epistemic and moral purity. I find the work of scholars like Miriam Ticktin (2017) who argues for “opening up political, moral, and affective grammars beyond innocence” and purity really powerful and persuasive. Through my ethnographic work, I’ve learned that the messiness and muddle of everyday life can throw up political and ethical possibilities that begin from a recognition that accountability, repair, and reparation require ongoing labor by un-innocent subjects (cf. Thomas 2019; Manalansan 2014). For me, this is where the possibility of justice, no matter how spectral, resides.

As for what I’m working on now, I have a couple of projects in the works. One project examines what scandals around sex and sexuality in rural Uttarakhand might reveal about the changing nature of rural subjectivity and the rural as a social formation. More specifically, I’m interested in how scandals illuminate ongoing debates among “villagers” about the nature of the village as an epistemic category, social space, and political unit. The other project examines recent legal decisions (in Uttarakhand) to grant rights to natural entities. I ask what such recent moves to recognize the rights of nature, and their productive tension with long-standing religious, cultural, and activist traditions that view nonhumans as social persons might reveal about the reimagining of Indian democracy as a more-than-human formation whose institutions and processes must cater not only to humans but also to nonhumans.


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